Batman: The Killing Joke

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“It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic.”

The Joker says this partway through the new animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which took the comic world by storm in 1988, has long been controversial for some of its more extreme character decisions. Not everyone agrees that the choices Moore made were wrong and, one way or another, pivotal moments have stuck in the canon almost thirty years later.

Regardless of your stance on The Killing Joke ’88, The Killing Joke 2016 makes it look like a masterpiece. From its insipid original material inserted to pad the running time and provide characterisation that does more harm than help, to its actual adaptation of the source material quite late in the piece, there is very little about The Killing Joke that works.

The first half of The Killing Joke deals with Batgirl chasing down Paris Franz, the presumptive heir to a prestigious Gotham crime family. Paris is a notorious womaniser (read: sexual harasser), and Batman doesn’t approve of Batgirl working the case. This is of course an excuse for Batgirl to work up a head of sexual frustration with Batman and to force her to have talk it through as Barbara Gordon with her gay librarian sidekick – which is approximately as good as it sounds.

The back end is the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke comic, with the Joker having escaped Arkham and buying an old amusement park for nefarious purposes involving Commissioner Gordon and, of course, Batman himself. Interspersed with the Joker’s plot are unreliable flashbacks to a failed comedian’s sepia toned life …

The Killing Joke ’88 was a 47 page comic, much more about shock than substance – some good lines thrown between Batman and Joker, and some great art, but a weak scheme from the laughing man and a fateful decision that DC has been dealing with the fallout from ever since. The efforts to make the animation longer – still short at 74 minutes – were wasted, as all of the new material is less than optimal.

Barbara Gordon is a pivotal part of The Killing Joke‘s story, but Barbara was never really a character in the original instance. Her utility as a plot device (and how she is used) is one of the biggest sticking points about the property, but Moore’s reliance on the audience’s in-built recognition of Barbara’s place in the Batman universe works better than what we get in the new and “improved” version.

What you’ve got to understand is that Barbara Gordon gets her own story in The Killing Joke 2016, and it’s one about how hung up she is on Batman, not even Bruce Wayne, because Bruce Wayne only gets a single scene in either version of The Killing Joke. Her duality equates to nights as Batgirl wanting to jump on Batman, and days in the library, complaining to her coworker about her complicated feelings for her “yoga instructor” (“and they say the gay scene is complicated”).

Batman is deliberately paternalistic towards Barbara, and if the script had stayed that way, if she had some sort of Electra complex going on that was being gruffly shot down, it might have flown. Instead, we’re supposed to read this as sexual tension. It is understandable that the Bat life might predispose you towards a more unconventional relationship than, say, your camp library aide, but later in the script – the parts drawn from the comic – Barbara mentions having been a child the first time Batman and the Joker clashed. It’s not creepy, but it rings alarm bells.

FullSizeRender-6The Batman of The Killing Joke is an emotionally frozen version of the character, and that is fine, but it also means that he should not take the direction that he does here. It’s one thing that Barbara is not solely to blame for the actions that she takes, but it’s quite another for her to have this reaction to them. To reduce what is supposed to be a complex and headstrong character – personality traits that are by design absent from The Killing Joke ’88 – to a woman who cares less about the crime she fights and more about her semi-requited feelings for a man who dresses up as a bat, is to do her a disservice greater than any perceived or real misdeed perpetrated by Moore in the first place.

What are we to take from Batgirl removing her costume while Batman stays fully clothed as we pan up to a gargoyle leering down at them? What can reasonably be made of a shot of Barbara jogging, close up on her butt and breasts – her legs and head carefully cropped from the frame so as to be unreadable? Fan service has been around for years, but in some properties it is far more obvious and obnoxious than others. You can’t invite us to be horrified by one form of Barbara’s exploitation while promoting your own unseen camera’s version of the same. It especially doesn’t work in the same title in which Batman gives a lecture about the evils of objectification. The Killing Joke 2016‘s two halves already have no cohesion, but to make each half internally inconsistent is several more layers too far. You can’t strengthen a character by weakening them, and you can’t show one thing and tell another unless you’re a comic book villain yourself. More than before, Barbara Gordon’s role in The Killing Joke 2016 is a tragic misfire.

Where the first and second parts of The Killing Joke clash in particular is the use of technology in the Paris storyline; Batgirl tracks Paris across the city through a series of obnoxious smartphone prompts, which is not in itself a problem, but it becomes one when it grinds against the completely un-updated adaptation of the comic. How can The Killing Joke be set in a modern day Gotham if the pseudo-recollections of the proto-Joker are still situated in a fifties-era tenement apartment and dive bar? Even if you reject the flashbacks out of hand as a concocted sob story that the Joker tells himself – and you probably should, as the whole point of him is that he’s a force of nature rather than a figure to be pinned down and analysed by way of an origin story, plus it’s near certifiable to think that the Joker came about specifically in that way  – their incongruously dated nature lend them no credibility whatsoever. To have director Sam Liu take that decision away from the audience is not just insulting, it’s counterproductive.

There is a lot wrong here, and much of it comes down to the use of the Joker. You can’t have a Joker story where the man himself shows up only halfway. Certainly you can get away with that if he’s a spectre looming over the story, or if there’s a build up to him. By having a completely unrelated storyline in order to beef up one character, very little credence is given to the real content of The Killing Joke. Easily the best thing that you can say about the entire project is that Mark Hamill is back as the Joker, and he easily outclasses everything that surrounds him. Good voice work canlift animation out of the doldrums – and The Killing Joke certainly looks like the doldrums –  and you can almost forgive The Killing Joke in the brief moments that Hamill gets to enliven proceedings. Ultimately, however, you can’t. The parade of grotesquerie that the Joker brings to the table makes The Killing Joke more unpleasant than when it was a by turns dull and unintentionally sexist frippery.


One thing that you can and should demand of a Batman property is that, at the very least, the art is good (don’t tell Frank Miller). For all of The Killing Joke ’88‘s flaws, it is hard to deny that Brian Bolland’s art and colour work (for the 2008 reissue) is exquisite. The aesthetic used for this animation doesn’t read as pale imitation or even shallow parody, but comes across as a lumpen mess. For all of the focus on making Barbara more of a character in her own story, there are frequent instances where shehas either a wonky eye or an almost featureless face. Her most important scene is rendered in a  distressingly cartoonish fashion, and its more horrific underpinnings – the ones that arouse the most complaints about the title – are rendered entirely more graphic under the circumstances. Panels are not frames, and a tableau does not translate so well to the screen, but there are definitely times when less is more. The Killing Joke 2016 doubles down on the horror that it has tried to downplay, made it more uncomfortable and unforgivable than it ever was before, and begs that we take it for the apology that it was intended to be.


In taking Bolland’s striking black-and-white with carefully selected highlights away from the flashbacks and render them in sepia with no elements outstanding, you take the grotesquerie of a couple of panels at the fair and stretch them out forever, make them uglier, and set them to music, DC has committed something of a crime against one of their tent poles. The Killing Joke was written in a feverish rush in the first place, but Alan Moore was never so lazy as to depict Batman throwing a dwarf into a pit of spikes. That’s kind of what Batman does not do, and exactly why people had so many problems with Batman v Superman earlier this year. There are things you don’t do in a Batman story and murdering dwarves is one of them. There is not a Batman style guide at hand at the time of writing this piece, but it is a safe bet that it does not endorse Batman inflicted fatalities.

With none of Barbara Gordon’s positive characteristics on display and Batman and the Joker being either absent, watered down or uglied up for the duration, there’s nothing to recommend here. Animation, if it can’t surpass the comics from which it is drawn, should at least supplement them. Producer and Batman animation visionary Bruce Timm – under the influence of a sackful of cash from DC – had hoped to add flesh to something that has been notorious for the entirety of its lifetime. The Killing Joke adds pablum rather than substance and does not even brag Timm’s distinctive aesthetic into the bargain; hideous, pointless and offensive is a triple threat in entirely the wrong direction, and it’s hard to say who has erred the most in the production of The Killing Joke. Are we to blame Timm, Liu or screenwriter Brian Azzarello, who has had respected runs across several DC titles? It’s entirely possible that The Killing Joke was a terrible idea from inception to premiere, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will take responsibility for the fact.


The Killing Joke ’88 is a heavily flawed work, but one that boasted excellent art and enduring influence for better and worse. 2016 takes what was viewed as exploitative in the original work and underlines it, runs it through an ugly filter and removes what little beauty, both artistically and thematically, it once had.

2016 is a more progressive place than 1988, and both what comics have to offer and what their readers demand have changed with the times. In taking what was already a throwback, throwing it further back, and pretending that it has somehow evolved, The Killing Joke is more offensive today than it ever was 28 years ago. If you were on the fence about The Killing Joke ’88 before, or if you thought that it was a travesty, don’t watch The Killing Joke 2016. Congratulations, DC: The Killing Joke ’88 is now a goddamn work of art.

Oscars 2014: My Reviews

Oscars Leave a comment

The Oscars are over, and now everyone can go back to forgetting that they never enjoy the ceremony so they can inevitably complain about the next host.

For those who haven’t been following me outside of this website, for the last year I’ve been writing reviews for Trespass Mag. Here are my reviews of some of this year’s big winners (though I saw Dallas Buyers Club, it wasn’t mine to review).


Best Picture: 12 Years A Slave


Best Animated Feature Film: Frozen


Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine


Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity


Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Pitch Perfect

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“At last,” said the scientist, her test tube glistening in the fluorescent light of the laboratory, “we have found this decade’s Bring It On!” She smashed the tube to the floor, and out of the smoke emerged a smiling Anna Kendrick and a krumping Rebel Wilson.

They saw the sign.

Unto every generation is unleashed a high school or college movie that speaks to everyone. Kirsten Dunst brought it to us twelve years ago, and now Anna Kendrick and a troupe of considerably less Aryan, less Buffy alumni, types are prepared to bring it to the next level.

Pitch Perfect is a smile of a movie, designed to make the audience feel good the whole way through without manipulating them into doing that. It’s got a lot of laughs, too, with the audience reacting to some deliberately horrible jokes (“a ca’scuse me?”) even on their fourth go-round.

For something that could have easily been a cynical exercise in selling endless horrible sounding covers on iTunes, rather more thought went into this film than many might have suspected. This is ultimately not a musical, but a comedy about a group of girls who become friends, and the alternately awful and misguided boys who they have designated as their enemies.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Film 2 Comments


Dear friend,

Perhaps I have never been infinite. I have definitely never been an American teen, nor did I ever attend an American high school. To be an American teen is an experience not really comparable to any other in the world; while higher education has at least some commonalities the world over, and adults are much the same everywhere, the American teen lifestyle as promoted on film is uniquely homogeneous and largely alien. The American high school milieu is so foreign that it should realistically be almost as unmarketable to Australia as the infernal baseball film.


But The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not a hard sell simply because of its alien subject matter; it’s a hard sell because no one in it is human. No one in this film is someone you would wish to exist, or someone who would actually be able to exist in the real world. No one in this film or the novel it is based upon has a life outside the celluloid or the page. They have only what author, screenwriter and director Stephen Chbosky has to offer them, which is precisely nothing.

Desperately grasping at a desire not to be inert, The Perks of Being a Wallflower goes beyond simple excruciation. Every moment of this film, save its quite nice soundtrack, conspires to make the viewer hate it.

And yet I am alone. I am the proverbial wallflower at the school dance. I am standing on the outside looking in at a party of people toasting Charlie, never quite understanding what they see in him. Not just unwilling, but unable to see exactly what there is to this bloodless mannequin of a human being.


I hated this film more than I normally hate anything. I can’t say for certain that I hated it more than its attendant novel (and I certainly hated that), but I can safely say that this is one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life to date, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. If someone wasn’t holding my hand, I possibly would have run from the cinema.

This is not a profitable way to spend 102 long minutes. This movie is infinite.

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Film, Sci-Fi/Fantasy Leave a comment

Someone has been waiting for Prometheus for 33 years. I hope they’re not disappointed. Me? Please, I’m only 26. Regardless, I’m satisfied. Others might not be so happy, but I don’t care: it’s my movie. They don’t need it, and they can’t have it.

Prometheus is kind of an entry in the Alien canon. It’s actually pretty unambiguous about that, but some people will want to ignore the various “clues” – that is, the names of entities featured in later Alien films, the designs inspired by Giger, the … Well, the everything. This is an Alien film, with echoes of the original and with something new besides. It’s not the evolution that Aliens represented, nor the declension of the latter two films. It’s its own film, and a hard film to classify at that.

But it’s good. It’s good.

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The Official 84th Oscars After Party!

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I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Oscars this year. As a piece of television entertainment, there was barely any drag. Apart from the In Memoriam roll, which doesn’t count, there was only one montage, and it was twenty minutes in.

Last year I said that hosts were irrelevant, and that the Oscars are boring and bloated anyway. It may partly be thanks to the fact that I couldn’t watch it live this year and was able to skip the ads with extreme prejudice, but I was close enough to entertained by the pageantry and never felt bored or like cussing out the production.


So maybe this is down to Billy Crystal, who actually had a presence beyond last year’s intermittent appearances of Anne Hathaway and James Franco, everyone’s favourite scapegoats. Crystal’s opening song wasn’t particularly inspired (“Mr. Joey” was only marginally less engaging than War Horse itself) and, like every single “host inserted into famous movie scenes of the last year” segment to date, this year’s showreel ran out of steam fairly quickly after an impressive start.

Despite this, Crystal represents stability. He’s a safety blanket. As he said, “Nothing can take the sting out of an economic downturn like millionaires presenting each other gold statues.” He’s the host the people of Chapter 11 Theatre need, and it’s a happy coincidence that he’s also the one they wanted. Rather than taking a backseat, Crystal was all over the show. It’s unfortunate that the lesson we take away from this is not “give the Oscar hosts good material to work with and don’t make them come across as aloof bastids and the show might work better”, but “we should never give anyone new a chance; as long as Crystal draws breath we don’t have to risk employing Allen Ginsberg and his like e’er again”.


I’ve since looked this up and it seems no one liked Crystal. You vultures will never be happy! He wasn’t even the baffling part of the show: why was Edward Norton telling us what he thinks of movies? What’s he done lately? Nothing for nobody. At any rate, the ceremony is a life support system for giving a bunch of golden dudes to a bunch of rich or aspiring-to-be-rich dudes and dudettes. Let’s examine the outcomes.


Hugo and The Artist tied with five awards each, with The Artist taking out the bigger ones of those. Once Dujardin took away his Best Actor award, Crystal informed us that “France is going nuts right now. Or whatever they have instead of joy,” which was the weirdest and cheapest joke to make given the circumstances. What I learned from all of these wins for The Artist is that its cast and crew felt a genuine love and enthusiasm for their work, and that obviously translated across to a lot of the Academy voters. It’s a shame that this didn’t come across to me, and that I’m just going to look at the Best Picture and Director wins as oddities in the long history of the Oscars. I would try to watch The Artist again, but it’s a movie that’s not designed to be consumed repeatedly. By contrast, I’m eager to see The Descendants, Hugo and Midnight in Paris again.

Scorsese can be happy with the recognition that Hugo deserved, but I legitimately feel that his love is more apparent on the screen without overwhelming. Unlike Hazanavicius’ work, it feels natural rather than forced – which I realise now was not Hazanavicius’ intent at all. I’m quite happy with Dujardin’s win because he’s a genuinely cool dude who tried his darnedest and came through.


As for Meryl Streep, well. I’m not going to complain about her being a career nominee, because that makes no sense: if you’re consistently good enough to secure a nomination, then that’s just a fact. Equally factual is that Streep’s frustrating performance in a less than half baked film was not the best of the five nominees. Michelle Williams should have taken this away: the clip they used to showcase her performance was magical and reminded me that she really is one of the best actresses currently working.


Speaking of showcase clips: the Oscars were hell bent on spoiling the movies this year. Key scenes from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Hugo and The Artist were all prominently featured. When Natalie Portman recapped to Dujardin everything that he did in The Artist, including several of the small delights that the big reveals provided, I couldn’t help but recoil in horror. Most people who go to see The Artist because of its win will probably forget everything they’ve been told, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Also less ambiguous is footage of Daniel Craig being gassed and the identity of his antagoniser being shown. There may be a statute of limitation on spoilers, but I’m not convinced that one’s passed yet.


I was impressed with both screenwriting credits, because I was very fond of Midnight in Paris and Woody Allen was coming from a personal place of love, both indulging his nostalgic urges and recognising their dangers. The Descendants, apart from being a very good script, means that Jim Rash is now the recipient of an Academy Award. Community, a show that has been consistently lining up sharks and jumping them for a good season and a half now, now stars an Oscar winner.


The rest of the show was pleasant enough, and for the first time in years I didn’t get bored and wish for the embrace of death. Good show, Academy. Good show.


PS. In my notes I may have referred to Gwyneth Paltrow as “Goopy McGee”. I’m not proud, but I have no regrets.


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The Official 84th Academy Awards Hoedown!

Film, Oscars 1 Comment

The annual bloodbath is upon us! The most notable films of 2011 have been filtered through the old white man machine, survived the gauntlet of lesser awards, and have been dragged onto the world stage for the only event that truly matters: the Academy Awards.


As always, I shall take you on an 11th hour guided tour of the films that have enchanted and frustrated audiences the world over and caught the eye of the Academy over the last year. Some are worthy, some decidedly less so. Only one film can win each category, and the rest will be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Unless you ask Matt Dillon, who insists that no one remembers the winner, only the nominees (he lost that year to George Clooney).

If anyone can remember anything positive about Crash, I don’t want to know them.


Let the games begin, and may fortune be ever in your favour!


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Love Never Dies – February 21, Capitol Theatre

Musicals, Stage 2 Comments


The Phantom of the Opera is the most successful stage musical of all time, but what a lot of people ignore is that it is also one of the dumbest. It’s the story of a petulant child in the disfigured body of a man, who kills people when he can’t get what he wants, and kidnaps women in an attempt to force them to love him. Most people look beyond that to consider the inherent tragedy of his situation, but there are some things you simply can’t recover from.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, by now a very rich man indeed, decided that a sequel was at last called for. Never mind that the original show was still going in London and New York (and still is, for that matter). Never mind that, by bringing the Phantom back onto the stage, you undo the enduring mystery of the finale. Never mind.


Love Never Dies was unleashed upon the London public and was almost universally reviled. The Love Never Dies that we have received in Australia is not a replica production, but a new construction from the mangled corpse of the old. To make it work, you have to ignore almost everything that you were told in The Phantom of the Opera, because this show frequently, openly and catastrophically contradicts its source material.

But work it does. Strangely. Grudgingly. Paradoxically. It can only begin to satisfy if you’re heavily steeped in the lore of the Phantom; whether you’ve had a chandelier dropped on your head when you were five, or been dragged to the show that many times … and then you’ve got to ignore everything you know, and accept texture over logic.

It’s a strange, ornate, boutique experience, and it’s only for you. A true spectacle, but a small and intimate story besides.

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Patlabor: The Motion Picture

Anime Leave a comment


It’s rare that I’ll rewatch a movie months after the effect, take its unpublished review, and almost completely scrap my thesis. Patlabor: The Motion Picture confounded my expectations when I watched it again after having rewatched the later, and alternate, TV series. It’s true that not everything strictly works about this project – some of the movie shorthand is too short – but one thing is clear: Headgear had almost complete understanding of their characters even before their most properly iconic incarnation.

Despite its 99 minute running time, this film is abrupt, but its animation and feel are superlative. If Oshii Mamoru had to cut his teeth somewhere, he couldn’t have picked a better project. I’m not convinced of the viability of this film as a standalone project, as it is best consumed within the context of tens of hours of other material but, rather like the OVA that preceded it, it’s definitely an excellent supplement.

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Britney Spears: The Cabaret – February 18, The Reginald

Music, Stage Leave a comment

Britney Spears, once a juggernaut of pop music, now has little more than ironic value in many circles. Tell someone that you’re going to see something called Britney Spears: The Cabaret and they’re going to look at you strangely and ask “why?”. There’s still a draw for old fans (that is, largely women roughly the same age as Spears herself), and she still sells, but the incredibly public life led by Britney has rendered her a modern curio.


Britney Spears: The Cabaret is not a tribute to Spears as such, but rather an examination of a fragile personality that has been buffeted from all sides and repeatedly pushed to breaking point and back again. As Spears, Christie Whelan begins her act tongue in cheek, eventually affecting a complete nervous breakdown in front of the audience.

It’s something special.

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